At college, I had two friends of Muslim heritage. The first of them resented the Muslim tag and pretty much rejected the faith completely. The other one was slightly more serious, fasting in Ramadan and being careful about eating halal. The first of the two would get annoyed with the latter for telling him to give up his daily appointment with a sausage roll from the canteen.
The first of the pair was anti-religion in his outlook. When he once encountered a hijab-wearing girl at college — the daughter of an English convert, as it happened — he took great umbrage to her headscarf and immediately rushed to her aid, seeking to liberate her from the oppression he imagined beset her.
The other friend tried his best to convince him that they ought to take their faith seriously, although when I asked him what Muslims believed, he could only tell me that they don’t eat pork, shouldn’t drink alcohol and should only eat halal. The Oneness of God, central to the tradition, he either took for granted or hadn’t considered.
Anyway, mostly rejected by my white contemporaries for whatever reason, I ended up hanging around with this pair throughout my first year of college and the first term of the second year. I thought we were getting on fine. Those two had their banter, playing off each other with their respective visions on life. The first was a romantic, looking for love. The other, big on the movies. The nonsensical plot of Terminator 2 was his big obsession, as I recall.
Between them, there was me, mostly silent, gormlessly laughing along with their jokes, grateful to have friends at last. The first of the pair was closer to me than the latter. I think he imagined he could relate to me more in his pursuit of freedom. When at the end of term he began dating a young white girl from a neighbouring school, he confided in me, not that other friend.
And then — BAM! — on the first day back from the Christmas holidays, I found the second of the pair blanking me. The first of them asked what was going on, only for him to blow up in my face. Apparently we were not talking anymore, though this was news to me. And just then, two separate events collided at exactly the same time.
The first: a girl seated amongst friends was pointing me out to a tall young man, confusing me. The second: my two friends wandered off to talk in private far away from me. The first event caused much amusement at my expense. The second brought my friend back with a frown on his face.
Without explanation, he told me that the second of the pair didn’t want to hang around with me anymore. Apparently he had never intended for us to become friends. From that point on, we would never speak again. Either I had done something really bad, or something had happened to him. Either way, I was undeserving of any clarification.
So that was that. I later wrote to him, telling him that I had valued his friendship, asking him why he did that, but I got no response. I worked through every hypothesis. Had he been the victim of a racial assault? Did he think I was gay? Had Hizb ut-Tahrir been preaching in town? Was it something I had said? Nope, but nothing. No explanation.
Yet there is a amusing twist to this tale. The last time I spoke to him as a friend was in December 1994. He was laughing his head off about an elephant’s genitalia, witnessed on a wildlife documentary the night before. That was the last day of term.
After his declaration of war, our paths would not cross again until the summer of 1999, when we were made to savour divine comedy in full.
I had just graduated university. My parents had moved away from Hull by then, for my mother had been given a parish near York to oversee. However, I decided to visit the city for the day. It was a Friday — Jummah — so I visited the mosque to pray with the community. Not being local, I arrived early, before it got crowded.
I wandered in quietly, keeping my eyes down, a little subconscious, apparently the only gora present at first. I knelt on the carpet in the middle of the hall and settled down to listen to the pre-khutbah bayaan.
Unfortunately, that was not easy, because the imam was in competition with a chattering congregation. So it was that I was growing increasingly annoyed by two young men just to my left, who were talking non-stop about the best DJ equipment and record decks. But, as I was a stranger and a guest, I said nothing and glanced straight on.
It was only after the prayer, when he grinned at me and gave salams, that I discovered that the vociferous DJ at my side was that old friend of mine from college. By then, he had clearly forgotten his vow never to speak to me again.
We didn’t really really have a chat then — a lot had happened for me in the intervening years — but I’d like to think that unplanned encounter stirred something inside of DJ Strange. Divine poetry, surely?
It’s strange some of the things that have happened since those difficult days at college. I have had some really weird encounters — coincidences in the secular lexicon. We think we’re in control of our destinies, but repeatedly we’re reminded that the One is in control.
It began as something strange. It returns as something strange. Glad tidings to the strange ones.